Terry Parker (1955-)
By Sam Mellace
Like Jim Wakeford, a Torontonian named Terry Parker was using cannabis for medicinal purposes. In Terry’s case, he used it to treat debilitating epilepsy that caused him to suffer near-daily seizures, some of which were so bad that he was hospitalized over 100 times for injuries he sustained while in the throes of uncontrollable epileptic fits. Cannabis, he had learned from over 20 years battling his disease, was the only medicine that kept him safe and mitigated his symptoms. Despite winning a Section 56 exemption, Terry was busted several times for possessing small amounts of cannabis, and the RCMP raided his home and seized 71 cannabis plants, charging him with trafficking. Terry launched a lawsuit against the federal government, arguing that the Section 56 exemption was worthless if the government could not guarantee a patient’s legal access to cannabis without fear of prosecution. After several rounds of judgments and appeals, the Ontario Court of Appeal, in July 2000, ruled definitively that denying legal access to cannabis for medicinal purposes was wrong. Judge Mark Rosenberg argued that, “forcing Parker to choose between his health and imprisonment violates his right to liberty and security of person.” In other words, if Section 56 guaranteed patients the right to use cannabis, it was unconstitutional for the government to prosecute those patients for possessing, growing, and otherwise accessing cannabis. The court ordered the RCMP to return the 71 plants to Terry Parker, dismissed the trafficking charge against him, and placed the burden on the federal government to come up with a system to ensure that people like Terry never again have to face a choice between their health and their freedom.
That court case, known as R. v. Parker, has become one of the most important legal precedents in Canadian history. A hundred years from now, Canadian law students will study it like Americans study Brown v. Board of Education (1954) as the beginning of the Civil Rights era. It was a watershed moment for liberty. In the Brown case, the court ruled that “separate but equal” was a contradiction in terms and a fundamental denial of liberty. The onus was on the government to create and enforce a new legal framework to protect Black Americans from discrimination and criminalization. That led to the Civil Rights laws of the 1960s. In the Parker case, the court ruled that being able to legally use but not legally access cannabis was a contradiction in terms and a fundamental denial of liberty. The onus was on the government to create and enforce a new legal framework to protect patients from discrimination and criminalization.
From the Canadian government’s perspective, there was a chilling consequence to the Parker case. Because cannabis was a Schedule II narcotic, its very existence anywhere should be illegal. But once it was in the court-protected hands of patients, the same cannabis was no longer illegal. This meant that any part of the black market that provided cannabis to patients could, in theory, no longer be black. The most obvious solution, it seemed to many, was for Health Canada to rewrite the law, remove cannabis from Schedule II, legalize and regulate the private growing and distribution of “medical marijuana,” and move on to more important things like curing AIDS and Alzheimer’s. As one might expect from a bloated bureaucracy and a paternalistic federal government, what Canadian patients got instead of common sense was a nebulous and hastily written policy called the Marihuana for Medical Access Regulations, or MMAR.
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